I have been an active member of the Arbitration Committee since January 1, 2009, having first been appointed to the committee following the 2008 election. I was reappointed in 2012 following the 2011 election, and completed that term in early January 2014. During that time, I've managed mailing lists, participated in cases, reviewed requests for amendment and clarification, developed and participated on the Audit Subcommittee, organized and managed appointment processes for checkusers, oversighters and AUSC members...and that's just the obvious stuff. I've learned a lot while I've been on the committee. A few of these lessons are listed below; they're my own opinion, and past and current colleagues may well have a different list.
The Arbitration Committee's purpose is to look out for the best interests of Wikipedia, not (individual) editors, and not (any aspect of) the community
This is probably the single most misunderstood fact about Arbcom. Decisions must be made with the best interests of the encyclopedia in mind; it's part of the reason that most Arbcom decisions start off with a principle that says "Wikipedia is an encyclopedia..." The Arbitration Committee is elected by the community to take on the responsibility of solving disputes that are harming the encyclopedia, in a way that reduces or mitigates the harm to the project.
Wikipedia is becoming increasingly rules-oriented
Wikipedia has a ridiculously complex system of interweaving and contradictory policies, guidelines, and usual processes; often these have to be weighed against each other, and consideration given to the broader impact of this balancing act. There is an informal hierarchy of policies that helps but is not definitive.
That hierarchy is:
- Policies from the WMF Board
- Policies/procedures from the WMF (usually to support a Board policy)
- Wikipedia policies that are part of the five pillars (i.e., notability, neutral point of view, verifiability, reliable sources, copyright, collegiality and mutual respect)
- Biography of living persons policy, which is formulated from key elements of the five pillars
- Other Wikipedia policies
- Wikipedia guidelines
- Usual practices
The locus of the case is almost irrelevant to the nature and outcome of the case
It doesn't much matter what article or topic area is affected by a case: all cases are about
- advocacy of one or more points of view
- editors treating each other poorly
- administrators using their advanced permissions
It should be noted that "advocacy" covers a lot of ground: it basically boils down to being adamant that a specific course of action is the only acceptable one, and applies equally whether it's formatting, acceptable/unacceptable content, article title, or even where a particular discussion should occur.
One arbitrator acting rashly or in a manner that reduces the effectiveness of the committee causes harm to the reputation and functioning of the committee
Yes, committees are inherently slower and more ponderous than individuals. That is actually one of the purposes of the Arbitration Committee: to take its time, canvass its members, and then act. Individual arbitrators moving too quickly without ensuring that information is confirmed or that consensus for action has been reached have permanently harmed the reputation of individual editors as well as the committee. Arbitrators who have a conflict of interest that is often obvious to everyone but themselves can create situations where there is no positive outcome: decisions made can be taken as fruit from a poisoned tree, or a co-opting of the committee.
Individual arbitrators who try to resolve complex matters by themselves when they have already been accepted by the committee delay the resolution of situations and, when unsuccessful (as they normally are) harm the reputation of the committee to resolve problems; single editors or administrators will have already tried, and the weight of the broadly diverse Arbcom behind a decision is instrumental in getting community buy-in to respect the committee's decision.
Arbitrators who disappear without notice or are unresponsive create problems in workload allocation, in particular if they've agreed to assume certain responsibilities. The apparently absent arbitrator's workload will eventually get redistributed, but usually not until deadlines are already breached; meanwhile, other arbitrators need to shift their priorities to take on additional tasks. Those who are forthright about their availability, even if they take on a smaller share of the burden, don't generally have as much of a negative impact, because nobody is counting on them to carry out time-sensitive tasks.
Time-limited sanctions are rarely effective at this level of dispute resolution
On reviewing older cases, it's striking how many that included time-limited sanctions wound up before Arbcom again, either as a new case or as repeated requests for amendment or clarification, or alternately resulted in indefinite sanctions at Arbitration Enforcement after multiple requests. Indefinite restrictions or those with specific criteria for removal are much more effective, reduce repeated Arbcom/AE activites, and create less disruption.
Wikipedia space is a terrible place to have a discussion
A long-retired arbitrator once told me that the only real benefit of the workshop page of an Arbcom case was to keep the disputants shouting at each other in one place, so they wouldn't be messing up the rest of the project. While there's some cynical truth to that, the reality is that it's almost impossible for arbitrators to hear each other's voices on workshop pages, many of the initial case requests, or any time there is a discussion about anything Arbcom-related onwiki: there's too much noise, and too many side discussions, with too many people complaining that their own small aspect of the greater issue has not been addressed. It's like having a philosophical discussion in the middle of a riot.
This is the reason that arbitrators will sometimes retreat to mailing lists, so that they're only having to focus on their limited number of voices, or to develop a common consensus on actions without being constantly interrupted. The biggest hurdle to increased transparency is that it's impossible to have the same discussions onwiki without being overwhelmed by outside opinions.
It's also impractical, sometimes, to do the "drafting work" onwiki. Refining the wording of motions, for example, needs to be done before the motion is posted; failure to do this has, on more than one occasion, resulted in multiple "versions" of the same motion being posted, with none of them gaining majority support. It's not an effective way to solve problems, and it's not a situation confined to the Arbitration Committee.
At the same time, there are good reasons to really encourage community involvement in more Arbcom-related processes. It's sometimes disappointing to see the small number of editors commenting on major issues such as review of discretionary sanctions, which can conceivably affect almost 0.5% of all articles on the project. When it comes to AUSC/Checkuser/Oversight candidates, there have been times where there were more community members applying for the positions than we had commenting on those who crossed vetting. In the future, there needs to be a community discussion about whether or not the AUSC continues to be useful, and whether or not we can come up with a community-based program that will eliminate the need for Arbcom to act as the "final stop" on block/ban appeals for community-based blocks. (2019 note: The AUSC was disbanded, and Arbcom decided to review only appeals of blocks by CU/OS or in relation to Arbcom decisions/enforcements, subsequent to writing these thoughts.)
Some people are always interested in your opinion
A week does not go by without someone asking me to comment or voice an opinion on some aspect of the project, whether it be interpreting, drafting or revising policy; discussions on noticeboards; prioritization of activities; disputes amongst users; or any number of other issues. I'm not alone in that, although some other arbitrators seem to have considerably fewer such requests. As well, arbitrators are often called upon to take up responsibilities or leadership roles in other movement activities, whether that be chapters, Board committees, communication with media, or attendance/presentation at large Wiki(p)(m)edia gatherings.
On the other hand, sometimes the opposite is true, and arbitrators participating in discussions while wearing their "community member" hat are treated as though they are speaking for the whole committee.
The biggest risk here is for the voices of individual arbitrators to be interpreted as speaking for the committee as a whole. I'll agree that sometimes there have been occasions where an arbitrator has assumed he or she is voicing a group opinion, or where the tone of their message has lent itself to that interpretation, but it's turned out not to be the case.
It's an encyclopedia
The number of times that matters have been brought to the Arbitration Committee with phrasing that suggests if a certain course of action isn't taken immediately, it will be the end of the encyclopedia, if not civilization as we know it, is absurd. It's an encyclopedia. Perspective is important. In most cases, disagreements on Wikipedia reflect disagreements in the world outside of the project. When one considers that the most voluminous Arbcom case ever involved date formatting, and the longest-running one resulted in a decision that removed one administrator's tools and otherwise boiled down to "play nicely", one realises that some people take this project far too seriously.
And at the end of the day
It's been five long years. Two terms is enough for anyone; some of my personal objectives haven't been met, but it's become clear that, at least for many of my colleagues, my priorities aren't in line with theirs. I started editing here because I believed I could make a difference for the project, and I still believe that. I've done this for five years, but there are still many, many things to be done in many, many areas of the encyclopedia, and in the broader movement. I can now consider taking on some responsibilities and roles that I have steadfastly not considered whilst carrying the responsibility of Arbitration Committee membership. I have faith that the community will select new arbitrators who will grow into the role and the responsibility. And I wish them all the best.